Sunday, February 11, 2007

FEMALE ON THE FLOOR! Panama begins

Arriving in my green wool Class A’s, I immediately felt the heat wave hit me as soon as I stepped off the military aircraft. Perspiration poured off me as I tugged at the two bulky and over-packed duffle bags. Looking up, I thought had spotted help, only to watch as the young and pimpled soldier pointedly ignored me.

One hundred percent wool and eighty percent humidity are not a good mix. But such were my first few hours in Panama after I flew into Howard Air Force Base. From there I was loaded onto one of the various transportation vehicles provided by our great Uncle Sam and hauled to the Replacement Center at Ft. Clayton. I stayed there only a short time, in fact, I hadn’t even finished in-processing, had not received my TA-50 when we twenty to thirty new replacements were packed-off to our gaining units ahead of schedule. Things were getting hotter and rapidly advancing toward war; undoubtedly the stage was set with a date in place. The actors were called in.

My gaining unit was 536th Engineer Battalion Combat Heavy. The unit had been “light” at one time. The difference between heavy and light being the difference between blowing up bridges and building them. At that time, females were not allowed into a combat light unit and it must have been a fairly new concept to allow us into the heavy units as far as I could see. I was one of five females in a battalion of five hundred soldiers. One might consider this as “special” but the truth was that the males by and large, were not impressed with our species in their unit, and especially perturbed were the NCOs who had to give up their “upgraded” rooms with private latrines to accommodate so few females.

Ft. Kobbe and Howard Air Force Base was a beautiful place located on the Pacific side of Panama. Had I arrived as a tourist, I might’ve been happier, but I had left our nation’s capital only a month earlier. The culture shock was overwhelming. It would test me more than the war, and for much longer.

It may have even been my first night there that HSC had a party of sorts. Quite different than our “functions” at D. C., at this one I was put on K. P. and soon enough my starched BDU’s were starched by the hundreds of potatoes I must have peeled and sliced for French fries that night. The attitude I’d been fighting arrived sometime during the peeling. I’m sure.

Maybe I should’ve handled it a little better, that honeymoon night, after all, in only a few days, we were locked-down and on full alert.

Personnel Movement Limitation levels, or PML, is the code for which movement is allowed by military personnel with Alpha being the most lenient and Echo being all-out war. When I first arrived in Panama, the PML was Charley, but within a short time moved into Delta. Delta detox is what our First Sergeant announced it as. No alcohol. PML Delta also meant we were locked down to the base and must sign out when leaving the barracks for any reason. With the Class VI store closed down (the Army’s package store) there weren’t too many places left to go besides the movie theatre or small PX. There’s nothing quite like sitting in a nearly regular movie theater when suddenly the reel is interrupted and on a square side-screen is an important message for soldiers from our brigade to return to their sections.

The war didn’t start the night we were called out of the movie. But shortly, after much guard duty, cussing, and constantly being pulled out of bed, sent to our sections and put on alert, the evening of Echo arrived. I think we were nearly relieved; we were so sick of the alerts in the middle of the night.

We were ordered to the armory to draw our Basic Load of ammo, and then each loaded seven banana clips with thirty rounds each. I was relieved there was an instructional icon on the magazine. By this time; I’d nearly forgotten how to load an M-16. After we finished, a company formation was called and there the company commander, with tears in his eyes called out: “This is not an exercise. This is the real thing. You are about to go out and earn your paychecks. I hope you all come back. Some of you may not. I pray to God that you all come back.”

All communication from the outside world was cut-off. We were at war. I was told to borrow another female’s TA-50. She was pregnant and would be locked down to the section too, but wouldn’t have to wear the full gear of 210 rounds, two heavy canteens of water, flak jacket and a pistol belt loaded with numerous other trinkets of olive drab green.

I know I looked comical with all the gear on. I must’ve resembled a toddler with too many winter clothes on. But nothing about the situation was funny to me. I wasn’t upset about the war as much as the heat, the sand fleas, and all the rude people.

I volunteered for the first shift of guard duty outside our section door. It was kind of neat to watch as it kicked off, well on schedule. Only minutes from Balboa, and a few minutes more to Panama City, I watched as the sky lit up over and over again. It reminded me of the fourth of July. Instead, the date was December 20, 1989. The invasion of Panama, or Operation Just Cause, kicked off before my eyes.

1 comment:

aunt karen said...

Wonderful, De'on. I want to hear everything!